Never Too Old and Never Too Late to Learn Japanese


There is a myth that only those who start learning young can be successful in acquiring a second language. Rest assured that this is indeed a myth. What is not a myth is that language learning takes a lot of time and effort no matter what age you start. Although it can be intimidating to get started as an older learner, anyone who is committed and who wants to learn Japanese can do it.  

It is never too late, and a person is never too old to learn Japanese. Adult learners of any age can be successful. Although there are differences in the ways children and adults acquire the language, the level of ultimate attainment is determined by time spent learning and motivation, not age.

Let’s start with a positive quote from a group of Harvard University researchers, “the misconception that adults cannot master foreign languages is as widespread as it is erroneous”. They go on to say that “a close examination of studies relating age to language acquisition reveals that age differences reflect differences in the situation of learning rather than in capacity to learn. [1]”

There is nothing that says being an older learner makes it impossible to learn a language. It is true that there is frequent failure by adults to learn a second language, but the reasons according to the researchers lie in a lack of motivation, a lack of commitment of time or energy, and a lack of environmental support [1]. So where does the misconception that adults cannot learn come from?

You may have heard of the critical period hypothesis which posits that up to puberty there is a window of opportunity to be able to acquire a second language, but once the window is passed, it becomes almost impossible. This theory is a fallacy, and the data simply does not support it, but sadly it might be at the root of why adult learners are doubtful of their ability to learn a second language.

Differences Between Younger and Older Language Learners

As mentioned above, age has more to do with the situation of learning and how learning gets carried out rather than something that prevents you from being able to learn. There are two main differences between child and adult learners which are implicit vs. explicit learning and cognitive abilities. Since adults have developed cognitive abilities, they can initially learn faster than children.

Another group of researchers from the University o Maryland and Texas A&M University point out that “Children necessarily learn implicitly; adults necessarily learn largely explicitly [2]”. Whereas implicit language learning takes place naturally and without conscious operations, explicit learning involves a conscious effort to make and test hypotheses to find the language’s underlying structure [3].

Especially with simple structures, adults can use their superior cognitive abilities to learn grammatical rules quickly and be able to put together grammatically correct sentences. But when it comes to more complex structures, the rules of a language become less clearcut and more difficult to apply. This is where implicit learning comes in handy.

Implicit language learning is a process that takes a long time but is eventually effective. In fact, the second group of researchers mentioned above go on to say that “children… eventually reach full native speaker competence through longterm implicit learning from massive input [2]”. So, in terms of speed of initial language learning, its learners who are a bit older who have the advantage.

In most studies in which measurements have been made of the speed of learning some aspect of a second language by learners of different ages, importantly, no advantages were found for young children. In fact, the advantage typically is in the other direction.

Susan M. Gass and Larry Selinker [4].

It takes young children much longer to learn a language, but there are a couple of differences which will positively impact the results of their ultimate attainment of the language. One that applies to both younger and older children is that they are most likely to achieve native-like speaking ability. But before going on, let’s clarify that native-like ability does not mean mastery or fluency in the language.

Some learners achieve a high level of mastery of Japanese and have superior linguistic knowledge compared to the average native speaker. But when they speak, they don’t necessarily express everything the same way that would come naturally for a native speaker, rather it is colored by how they would make the equivalent expression in their native language.

The second positive aspect of learning a language as a young child is the one true advantage that very young child learners have vs. adults. The following quote sums it up: “There is a general consensus that most older individuals cannot reasonably hope to ever achieve a native accent in a second language. There is no such consensus about other areas of language [4]”.  

The Real Reason Younger Learners Seem to Excel at Japanese

So, you will likely end up speaking with an accent, but rest assured that your age does not otherwise prevent you from learning Japanese! But why does it still seem like younger learners learn better than older learners? It’s because they are spending a lot of time learning and practicing the language. Let’s take an extreme case of a middle school aged child moving to Japan. This child would be in immersion.

Schooling and learning new subjects would take place in Japanese. It has been found that “Students who learn other subjects in a foreign language are likely to gain fluency and competence faster [5]”. Furthermore, Japanese friends would be made, and most of this child’s time would be spent using Japanese. At a certain point, Japanese, although it’s the second language, could even become this child’s dominant language [6]. But what it’s really coming down to is the sheer number of hours spent with Japanese.

The video below is an interesting one that discusses types of bilinguals people might become based on their age of immigration to a new country. In this case, a whole family immigrates. The children seem to fare much better than their adult parents, but back to what was stated above, how many more hours do you think the children are spending with the new language relative to their parents?

Ted Ed Video: The Benefits of a Bilingual Branin

What Makes Language Learning Hard? What Affects Ultimate Attainment?

Learning a language is challenging task and there are hurdles to overcome which take a lot of effort. Let’s first look at a couple things that happen when learning and trying to communicate in Japanese. Because you already have your native language intact, you first learn Japanese by equating vocabulary and grammar to their equivalents in your native language.

When you try to speak, it comes out as a direct translation from your first language, which may not be a natural way to formulate the expression in Japanese. You substitute the words you would use in your native language for their closest Japanese equivalents to create your output. This is called language transfer. Another thing that happens is the development of an interlanguage.

…learners create a language system, known as an interlanguage… [Which is] a system of its own with its own structure. This system is composed of numerous elements, not the least of which are elements from the native language and the target language.

Susan M. Gass and Larry Selinker [4].

An interesting phenomenon can happen in which a learner’s interlanguage becomes stable and permanent. At this point they speak quite fluently but make certain mistakes consistently and express things in ways that are less natural compared to native speakers. They are able to fully express themselves and carry out their personal and professional life in Japanese, but with a few quirks.

The concept of stabilization of an interlanguage is called fossilization and it affects millions of learners. What happens is that despite continued exposure to input, motivation, and practice, the learner stops getting closer to native-like speech [7]. As mentioned, the learner is quite fluent at this point, so it does not seem like a bad place to end up, but it’s good to be aware of what causes fossilization and how to remedy it.

How to Succeed as an Older Japanese Language Learner

Some of the causes of fossilization are lack of instruction, absence of corrective feedback and lack of written input [7]. The remedies for the first two are to seek help from a native speaking Japanese teacher! As mentioned by the Harvard researchers, lack of environmental support is key cause of failure for older language learners. Working with a native speaking Japanese teacher will give you the environmental support you need.

When working with your teacher, you are in a safe situation where it is perfectly acceptable to make mistakes. You can get corrective feedback and practice saying what you want to say as much as you need. Your teacher is there to support you. I have written about how to work with a teacher here, and I have also written about how to find your teacher and the benefits of using a great one-on-one language coaching platform called italki here.

The third cause, lack of written input, can be remedied by reading more in Japanese. My advice would be to read material that you are interested in which you are likely to talk about in real life. I can also recommend taking it a step further and practice reading with your teacher. As you read, you can discuss the meaning together and dissect why certain Japanese sentences are formulated the way they are.

As an adult learner, you will need to do what children do in order to get closer to native-like speech, which is to take in massive input. The input you want to focus on in particular is comprehensible input, which is input that you can still understand, although you may not recognize every word and structure. But what’s important to keep in mind is that this is a process that takes a lot of time.

The Time and Effort it Takes to Learn Japanese

As alluded to above, when considering time, you can’t think just in terms of years, you need to think in terms of hours per year. A person who learns for one hour a day will take far longer to reach their ultimate attainment than someone who spends 8 hours a day learning. Let’s look at an even more basic case: 4 hours per week of language classes x 12 weeks per semester, x 2 semesters per school year = 96 hours per year.

The group of researchers who looked at the above case had this to say “Learning a second language for 95 hours per year for six years will not lead to functional bilingualism and fluency in the second language. Expectations must be realistic [5].” So, we see that you need to be able to commit significant time to learn a language, particularly Japanese.

If you want to try to think in terms of years, our friend Teppei from the podcast Nihongo Con Teppei, talks about his experience working with Japanese language learners who have spent varying amounts of time learning. He anecdotally confirms that it takes several years to become proficient. Many people are quite good after 10 years, but it can take about 10 more years to get closer to native level.

Getting back to hours, the United States Foreign Service Institute sates that it takes about 2,200 hours to achieve professional working proficiency [8]. And if we look at the popular study by Ericsson et al. [9], we see that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill, which in our case is Japanese. So, what would be an effective way to get your hours as quickly as possible?

One option is to go to a Japanese language school in Japan. You could learn in class for many hours a day, and with a high level of discipline, focus on communicating only in Japanese outside of class as well. I touch on some of the benefits of attending a language school in Japan in an article I wrote about the cost of learning Japanese, here. But it is also very possible to learn Japanese outside of Japan, which I wrote about here.

Ultimately, to accumulate the hours that you need, learning Japanese will be a marathon of many years. The process is difficult, and it takes sustained motivation to continue the learning journey. If you find that you feel stuck learning Japanese, which is a hard place to be because it hurts your motivation to continue, I have written about how to get through it here.

In closing, no matter your age, know that you can learn Japanese! You may have an accent and you may not sound perfectly native-like, but if you put in the time and effort, you will become an amazing Japanese linguist. The only way you can fail is by giving up.

If you have not yet started learning, let me recommend the Genki textbook series as a place to start. I have written about it here. And even funds are tight, it’s ok, I have written all about learning Japanese for free here.


References

[1] Marinova-Todd, Stefka H., Marshall, D. Bradford, Snow, Catherine E. (2000). Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1., pp. 9-34.

[2] DeKeyser, R., and Larson-Hall, J. (2005). What does the critical period really mean? In J. F. Kroll and A. M. B. De Groot (Eds.), Handbook of Bilingualism: Psycholinguistic Approaches (pp. 88–108). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Ellis, N. C. (1994b). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning – An Overview. In: Nick C. Ellis 1994, 1-31. (Retrieved from http://webdoc.sub.gwdg.de/edoc/ia/eese/artic98/finkb/10_98.html)

[4] Gass, Susan M., Selinker, Larry. (2008). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, Third Edition. Routledge.

[5] Archibald, J., Roy, S., Harmel, S., Jesney, K., Dewey, E., Moisik, S., et al. (2006). A Review of the Literature on Second Language Learning. The University of Calgary.

[6] Birdsong D. (2018) Plasticity, Variability and Age in Second Language Acquisition and Bilingualism. Front. Psychol. 9:81. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00081

[7] Han, Z-H. (2004). Fossilization: Five Central Issues. International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 212-42.

[8] Foreign Service Institute. Foreign Language Training. U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/ [Accessed April 2022].

[9] Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The Making of an Expert. Harvard Business Review (July-August).

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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